TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Before Prince died, he'd started writing a memoir. He wanted a writing partner he could open up to. After rejecting several high-profile names, he settled on my guest, Dan Piepenbring, who was definitely not famous. Piepenbring was a 29-year-old editor of the literary magazine Paris Review. Just a few months after their first meeting, Prince died of an opioid overdose on April 21, 2016.
Prince had left behind the pages he'd already written about his childhood and adolescence in Minneapolis. Unable to complete the memoir Piepenbring planned to write with Prince, Piepenbring fashioned the book into something else. It includes the chapters Prince had already written as well as an essay by Piepenbring about working with Prince, Prince's handwritten lyrics to some of his songs, some photos of Prince and images of things Piepenbring found in the vaults at Paisley Park, Prince's compound.
The book, which is edited by Piepenbring, has the title Prince had planned to give his memoir, "The Beautiful Ones." It's named after the song Piepenbring describes as one of the most naked, aching songs in Prince's catalog. Let's start with that song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES")
PRINCE: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, what's it going to be? Baby, baby, baby, is it him or is it me? Don't make me waste my time. Don't make me lose my mind, baby. Baby, baby, baby, can't you stay with me tonight? Oh, baby, baby, baby, don't my kisses please you right? You were so hard to find. The beautiful ones, they hurt you every time. Paint a perfect picture. Bring to life a vision in one's mind. The beautiful ones always smash the picture. Always, every time.
GROSS: Dan Piepenbring, welcome to FRESH AIR.
DAN PIEPENBRING: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: This book is great. I'm really glad that you were able to put out what you were able to put out posthumously. Prince was always so elliptical about his life. Why did he want to write a memoir?
PIEPENBRING: Ah, that is, of course, the question on everyone's mind and something that I was so curious about myself when I first went out there to meet him. And I think there were a few things kind of on his mind. I do think he was maybe aware of the fact that he was growing older, of his mortality, of his legacy. And I think he was bringing renewed attention to the role that his parents and his past had played in shaping his psychology and informing his creative identity. And I think that he saw a book as a chance to explore those ideas with some depth that maybe would not be available to him in music.
I know that toward the end of his life, he was also sort of experiencing a second act as an activist, and he was very politically aware where maybe once he had not been. He was a huge supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. When Freddie Gray was murdered by police in Baltimore, Prince went and played a show there. And he even wrote a song called "Baltimore" that is really the kind of most straight-ahead protest song in his catalog. And I think he saw, having lived through so many political crises and having developed such sharp ideas about how to thrive as an African American creative in America - that he saw the memoir as a way to really address that with more candor than would be possible in his music.
GROSS: In your list of reasons why he wanted to write a memoir, one of them was growing awareness of his mortality. Friends of his were falling ill. Do you think that was one of the reasons why he was more aware of his mortality?
PIEPENBRING: Absolutely. And I think he was someone who was always very aware of what his musical peer group was doing. And I think Michael Jackson's death had really affected him greatly. He and I talked a lot about Michael, as he would call him. It was only Michael, never Michael Jackson. And I think the loss of someone who had always been framed as his kind of chief rival and someone with whom Prince certainly kind of sparred on the charts and musically and with whom he had a kind of contentious but very fruitful relationship - I think the death of someone like that could only weigh on him in ways conscious and subconscious. So I think there was certainly more thought that he was giving to what it meant to be leaving this Earth, what he would leave behind.
GROSS: How did you get to even audition for being Prince's collaborator on his memoir?
PIEPENBRING: Yeah, it's a wonderful and exceptionally unlikely story that begins in New York in November of 2015 when I went out for a drink with my literary agent, Dan Kirschen of ICM. And he let it slip, almost haphazardly, that he was working on putting together a book by Prince. And as soon as he saw my face, I think he knew he had made a grave mistake because it lit up like a Christmas tree. And I practically grabbed him across the table and said, you know, I need to be a part of this. I had been a Prince fan for so many years by then.
And he made it clear - Dan did. We're two Dans - that I was never going to get this job. I was 29 years old. I was an editor at The Paris Review at the time, not something that Prince was likely to be familiar with. And most glaringly, I had never written a book, which I think is usually fairly disqualifying in these things.
PIEPENBRING: And he was looking...
PIEPENBRING: ...(Laughter) For a level of expertise. So Dan did not mince words. He said that I was never going to get this job but that he would, as a favor, put me on a list of potential collaborators for Prince.
GROSS: You wrote an essay explaining why you wanted to be the person Prince chose to collaborate with him. And...
PIEPENBRING: That's right.
GROSS: ...He read the essay and asked to meet with you. So before we get to his critique of your essay, set the scene...
GROSS: Set the scene for us for your first meeting with Prince.
PIEPENBRING: Yes, it was, I believe, January 29, 2016 - so winter in Minneapolis. And it was after dark when I finally arrived at Paisley Park. I'd had only about a day's notice that I would be going there at all. So I had submitted this statement, I think, on a Wednesday night. And by Friday morning, I knew that I was going to be out there. And then sure enough, there I was. Prince's chauffeur, Kim Pratt, was driving me up to Paisley Park, which is in Chanhassen, about 40 minutes, maybe, out of out of Minneapolis, a fairly unremarkable suburb. And to see Paisley Park from the outside. I think you could drive right past it without ever knowing about the wonders that take place within its walls. It really looks very anonymous, like an office park or a place where they make some sort of plastic products or something. And there were purple sconces lighting it up, I remember, as we pulled up.
And because we had been working, Dan and I, with Prince's aides throughout this process, I was under the impression that one of them would be attending the meeting with me. And that turned out not to be the case. When I got out of the car and approached the front door of Paisley Park, Prince was there alone, ready to shake my hand and to introduce him to himself to say, hi, Dan. I'm Prince.
GROSS: So you had written an essay explaining why you wanted to collaborate with Prince. And he critiqued your essay. And that's a really interesting critique. Like, you wrote that when you listened to Prince for the first time, you felt like you were breaking the law.
GROSS: And the song you were listening to was "If I Was Your Girlfriend." So...
PIEPENBRING: That's right.
GROSS: ...Let's hear just a little bit of that, and then we'll talk about why you felt like you were breaking the law.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I WAS YOUR GIRLFRIEND")
PRINCE: (Singing) If I was your girlfriend, would you remember to tell me all the things you forgot when I was your man? Hey, hey, when I was your man. If I was your best friend, would you let me take care of you, do all the things that only a best friend can? Oh, only best friends can. Ooh. If I was your girlfriend. Ooh. If I was your girlfriend. If I was your...
GROSS: That was Prince singing if - his song "If I Was Your Girlfriend." My guest, Dan Piepenbring, is the editor of the new Prince memoir. So Dan, why did that song, when you first heard it - the first time you heard Prince - why did it make you feel like you were breaking the law?
PIEPENBRING: Yeah, I remember this vividly. I was, I think, 16 years old. I'd just gotten my driver's license. And this was in rural Baltimore County, where I grew up. I was driving around alone for one of the first times ever, and that in itself is kind of an illicit feeling. And at the time, I was really listening to a lot of classic rock and jazz and things like that. And I was a drummer, so I really abhorred drum machines. I thought that they were - that they had no place in music.
But then this song came on the radio - I think it was on Towson University radio - "If I Was Your Girlfriend." And in the song, Prince is singing under the persona that he called Camille. So he was speeding his voice up. In addition to singing in a falsetto, he again sped the tape up so his voice sounded even more feminine and high-pitched. And then there's all these very ethereal synthesizers on there, and of course a drum machine playing this very eerie, spare backbeat.
And Prince on that song is singing really from the perspective of a woman, but as a man who wants to be a woman so that he can be closer to his partner and get the access psychologically to her that he feels he's denied by by virtue of his masculinity. I had just never heard anything so psychosexually frank, I don't think. It was really a haunting but beautiful song. It made me feel just sort of strange, I think combined with the fact that I was out there on the road by myself. It just seemed like something that was almost too intimate to be hearing.
GROSS: When you wrote that you felt like you were breaking the law, Prince objected to that. He told you he objected to that at your first meeting. What was his objection?
PIEPENBRING: He thought that his music was not at all lawbreaking, that it was completely harmonious. And when he told me this, we were sitting across from each other in his conference room in kind of perfect silence, and we were surrounded by candles. And there was kind of a sense of harmony in the place. Paisley Park really felt like a sanctuary or a cocoon. I could see that I had offended him or misread him, and I worried that he'd flown me all the way out there just to say that.
But to his mind, lawbreaking music would be something more like Led Zeppelin or something, I guessed, bluesier, more dissonant. And he felt that he was always trying to make music that was in accordance with the law, that was - that had a harmony that elevated it to suit his more religious side, you know? So he really resisted the idea that he was in any way a lawbreaker.
GROSS: Yeah. And he told you he writes in harmony, and he always lives in harmony.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Piepenbring. And the new book that he edited and wrote the opening essay in is called "Prince: The Beautiful Ones." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dan Piepenbring. And he was supposed to be collaborating with Prince. Prince had actually chosen him to collaborate on Prince's memoir. Prince died shortly after they agreed to do the book. So Dan edited a new book called "Prince: The Beautiful Ones," and it's Dan's personal essay about Prince. It's the pages Prince had written before he died that he meant to be included in the memoir. And there's also a lot of song lyrics and photos and other things collected from Paisley Park.
An objection he raised about a lot of people who had written about him was their use of the word magical or alchemy to describe his music. Did you use either of those words in your essay?
PIEPENBRING: Yes. Yeah, I definitely use some variant of magical and maybe alchemy too, and also transfigure, which was a further word that he resisted.
PIEPENBRING: He had very, very, very particular fastidious ideas about which words belonged in his orbit. And particularly, a word like transfigure, which, of course, has a very strong literal religious connotation - he felt that he could not apply that to his kind of secular music. It would be wrong. It would be a violation of the proper order of things. And magic he had the most memorable objection to. He said that funk is the opposite of magic. Funk is about rules. And he pointed to all the work that went into his music - that there was really no magic in it. It was a labor - a labor of love but a labor nonetheless - and that he'd had to learn to play all of these 27 instruments that he played on his first album, that he'd had to learn how to mix them, how to master them, how to program the drum machine and that funk was about rules. And I would come to see once I learned about his parents that that kind of discipline side really came a lot from his father.
GROSS: He also thought that magic or magical - those were Michael words, not Prince words.
PIEPENBRING: That's right. He said - when he was driving me back to the hotel in his car, he looked over and said, you know, really think carefully about which words you would use because magical is not one that I would use to describe me. That is Michael's word. He thought that Michael Jackson's music had this kind of magic. And I think he's right about that. If you listen to something on Thriller, there is a kind of storybook quality to it - a more fairytale vibe - something magical that doesn't quite show up that much in Prince's own catalogue.
GROSS: Why do you think Prince chose you to be his collaborator for his memoir?
PIEPENBRING: That's, of course, something that I'll always wonder about. In true Prince fashion, he never kind of levelled his gaze at me and said, Dan, this is why it's you. He left me only sort of fragments and clues. One, I think, really goes back to that idea of diction - of words. He said to me at one point, you know, you know a lot more words than I do. And that's, of course, very flattering, but I don't really think it was true. He was very well-spoken, and he had a talent for neologism. He would invent words like normalady - n-o-r-m-a-l-a-d-y. That's one that shows up in his book.
But I think he wanted someone who shared his kind of playful sense of language and his desire to experiment with the book. He didn't want someone who was going to be judging him for wanting to break the mold of the memoir or trying to fit him in a template, you know? I think if there was any advantage to the kind of guilelessness that I brought to our conversations, it was that it let me listen to him very openly and without judgment. And he writes at one point, it's much easier to open up with your pen if someone isn't judging you for what you're doing.
GROSS: Where was Prince musically when you started working with him on his memoir?
PIEPENBRING: He had just launched a solo tour - I believe the first one of his career - called Piano and a Microphone, where he was going to perform at various kind of smaller venues around the world. And it was just going to be him and his piano on the stage. And he would really sort of reinvent songs from his whole catalogue, his whole career on the fly. And he was mixing these - also, I think, for the first time ever - with stories and anecdotes from his past, especially from his childhood. And it was always great to see those shows. I got to see two of them when I was with him in Melbourne in Australia. And it was so fascinating because I would hear him say something that I had just talked about with him or had just read in his pages, especially his memories of his father and his father's own piano playing and how he would sit down at the piano with his dad and really figure out how it worked - that kind of first blush of musicality in his life. So it was fascinating to see how the intimacy that he was bringing to those shows really synced up so perfectly with what he was hoping to accomplish in his memoir.
GROSS: My guest is Dan Piepenbring, who was collaborating with Prince on his memoir when Prince died. Piepenbring has edited the new book, "The Beautiful Ones." We'll talk about how Prince saw himself as a synthesis of his parents' different personalities after we take a short break. Let's hear a song from Prince's posthumously released album, "Piano And A Microphone," recorded in Prince's home studio in 1983. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "17 DAYS")
PRINCE: (Singing) Called you yesterday. You didn't answer your phone. Main drag is knowing that you probably weren't alone. (Speaking) Turn the voice down a little. (Singing) I want to call you every day and beg you to be near me. I know your head is underwater. I doubt that you could hear me. Let the rain come down, the rain come down. Let the rain come down, down. Let the rain come down, rain come down. Let the rain come down, down. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Been gone 17 days, 17 long nights.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Dan Piepenbring, who was collaborating with Prince on his memoir before Prince died. Now Piepenbring has edited a new book called "The Beautiful Ones" that includes the pages Prince had written before he died as well as an essay by Piepenbring about working with Prince and photos and lyric sheets that were found in Paisley Park after Prince's death.
One of the reasons why Prince wanted to write a memoir is that he wanted to explain how he emerged as a synthesis of his parents. What are some of the ways his parents were different from each other?
PIEPENBRING: In the memoir pages that he sat me down and showed me in Australia, from the very first paragraph, he's thinking about his mother and father and how they really formed the kind of two poles of his being. And he said in my last conversation with him, four days before he died, that that was really one of the central dilemmas of his life. He said that he liked order, finality and truth. Those were all things that he ascribed to his father. But if a deejay put on something funky, he was going to want to dance, and that would be his mother's influence.
His mother, in these pages, emerges as a very free-spirited, almost headstrong woman, someone who was irrepressibily free, I think, and who would not allow herself to be told what to do or how to do it. And of course, we see that time and again in Prince's career. But his father was a much more disciplined, religious man, someone who worked two jobs, one as a musician at nightclubs and the other at the Honeywell factory in Minneapolis. And he really was - he was concerned with just getting food on the table and keeping the trains running on time.
And you see that in Prince too, I mean, that vast work ethic, that commitment to making things happen. So I think, to his mind, he was always trying to reconcile the way that those two came together in him. And I think he felt the tension there a lot. And that's something that he would explore throughout his career.
GROSS: And it's something he kind of explores in his song "When Doves Cry." And he was hoping that he could break down the lyrics in the book. He didn't live long enough to do that. But what did he tell you about the lyric to "When Doves Cry?"
PIEPENBRING: Well, there's a great passage in the memoir pages where he's written down the margin vertically "When Doves Cry." And that is the section of the book pertaining to his parents' divorce, which was a word that they were reluctant even to use with him. They would say, you know, I'm going to go away for a while. You might not see so much of me.
So I think the true scope of their strife or of their struggle to kind of make their relationship work was something that he felt was kind of hidden from him, and that was what he was trying to get out in "When Doves Cry," like why did this thing fall apart? Why was there physical violence between his mother and his father? At one point, his mother even used him sort of as a human shield. She said, go tell your father that he has to be nice to me.
And I think all of those memories came flooding back really unbidden at so many times in his life that when he sat down to write "When Doves Cry," he was really trying to figure out how he embodied them and how he could unify himself in the way that they were not able to unify their love.
GROSS: Do you want to quote the lines that specifically refer to a mother and a father in "When Doves Cry?"
PIEPENBRING: That's right. How can you just leave me standing alone in the world so cold? Maybe I'm just too demanding. Maybe I'm just like my father, too bold. Maybe I'm just like my mother. She's never satisfied.
And it's interesting because I would have thought that his mother was just as bold as his father, given the way she's depicted in his memoir pages. But I can see what he means about her never being satisfied. She always wanted more. And he writes that she always wanted a sort of whirlwind love affair involving a lot of travel and gifts and kind of active romance. And his father, in his boldness, I think, was just lashing out at that. You know, he was too much concerned with the more quotidian day-to-day stuff to indulge that romantic side.
GROSS: Well, let's hear "When Doves Cry."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN DOVES CRY")
PRINCE: (Singing) Dig if you will the picture of you and I engaged in a kiss. The sweat of your body covers me. Can you, my darling - can you picture this? Dream if you can a courtyard, an ocean of violets in bloom. Animals strike curious poses. They feel the heat, the heat between me and you. How can you just leave me standing alone in a world that's so cold? Maybe I'm just too demanding. Maybe I'm just like my father - too bold. Maybe you're just like my mother. She's never satisfied. Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like when doves cry.
GROSS: So that, of course, is Prince, "When Doves Cry." My guest, Dan Piepenbring, was supposed to be Prince's collaborator on the book that - the memoir that Prince had decided to write shortly before he died, but he died before much could be done on the memoir. Dan has edited a new book called "Prince: The Beautiful Ones." That's Dan's essay about working with Prince. It has the pages that Prince had written before he died and a lot of, like, photographs and song lyrics and more.
I - you know, it's so interesting that that he loved to watch his parents dress up and that he'd, you know, dress up after they'd leave. He had such amazing outfits when he performed. What did you learn about Prince and clothing?
PIEPENBRING: I mean, when I saw him, he tended to be fairly dressed down, for him. But there was still such care put into his appearance. Even if it were just in his hotel room that we were meeting and there was no chance of anyone being around, he would have a full outfit, and his afro would be picked out. And he would certainly exude a fragrance. He was always a very perfumed man, and I struggle to describe his scent. But after he died, when I saw his wardrobe again, it still exuded that scent but, of course, without that kind of extra dimension that comes from it being on the skin as well. And I remember being just bowled over with sadness to smell him on his clothing still.
And he would wear things like a kind of draping rainbow top with his own face on it, his own - an illustration of his own head, or he would wear a kind of matching sweat suit almost in this very lovely kind of sienna color with beaded necklaces and a beanie. And then when he wanted to go out, he would add a pair of leather gloves that had his symbol on it and, of course, this cane that he was carrying toward the end of his life that also had his symbol on it and had this intricate pattern kind of etched into the steel or the metal.
GROSS: My guest is Dan Piepenbring, who was to be Prince's collaborator on Prince's memoir. Prince died shortly after he'd started the memoir. Dan has edited a new book called "Prince: The Beautiful Ones," which is Dan's essay about Prince, the writing Prince had done before his death and a lot of other things like photos, lyrics, things that were discovered in Prince's vaults. We're going to take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "HEAD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us my guest, is Dan Piepenbring. He was going to be Prince's collaborator on Prince's memoir. Prince died very early in the process. Dan edited the new book "Prince: The Beautiful Ones," which is Dan's essay about Prince, Prince's writings that he finished before his death and then a lot of other things from Prince's vaults.
How did he start playing music?
PIEPENBRING: It was through his father. They would sit together at the piano, and I remember Prince learning the "Batman" theme song. He was very into Adam West's Batman, so he'd sit there playing, you know, (singing) doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo (ph) Batman. And the rest is history, you know? It's a short leap from there to "Purple Rain." But I think it was really his father's influence and then also just the kind of musicality of Minneapolis and north Minneapolis as a city at that time. The DJs and the music stores, the local bands, the kind of competitive one-upmanship that you saw in the music scene - all of that really made him want to hone his craft and want to understand what was going on in a song, to take it apart and put it back together again.
GROSS: You know, it's interesting. Like, his name is Prince. That was his given name. It's not, like, a name he took on for himself. But in school, in elementary school, teachers wouldn't call him Prince, or at least one of his teachers wouldn't call him Prince. Like, explain why not.
PIEPENBRING: I think that they felt that there was just something wrong about it. He compared it to a boy having the name King and how a teacher would never want to call anyone King. I think to conjure royalty in the classroom would make a teacher, an authority figure, kind of unsettled, you know? Here is this child who is clearly not supposed to be in control, not supposed to be the authority, but to use a word like Prince, it summons that very level of authority.
So they would call him Skipper instead. And I think Prince, of course, has various challenges to authority that he raises in his music throughout his career, and I think it all goes back to those experiences in the classroom where he felt that he had this name - it was his name. It was his father's name. It was something that he held very closely, and yet it had no place in school for some reason. I can imagine how that must have frustrated him.
GROSS: And yet during part of his career, he abandoned his name and became The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.
PIEPENBRING: That's right. I think that only indicates again how almost sacred the name was to him, especially because of the bond that it forged between him and his father, you know, being one of two Princes in that household. And in the '90s, when he was quarrelling with Warner Brothers, his record label, I think he felt that if he was not able to control his creative output and to live the way he wanted to live, then he couldn't, in good faith, live under his given name. He had to kind of forsake it.
GROSS: So correct me if I'm wrong, but Prince, I think, grew up in a neighborhood of Minneapolis that was primarily African American, but he was bused to a white elementary school.
PIEPENBRING: Yes, that's right. For at least a brief period - I think in fourth or fifth grade - that is correct.
GROSS: And the people in the white school had a lot more money than the people in his neighborhood.
PIEPENBRING: That's right, yeah. And I think he really was not fond of that experience. He sung very scathingly about it on the song "The Sacrifice Of Victor." And when he was recounting it to me, he had nothing but bad things to say. He really compared it to...
GROSS: About that school, about being in that school?
PIEPENBRING: Yeah, about the busing experience. I mean, he found it no more enlightened than segregationist Alabama. And I think it was not a place that he had any desire to return to, but certainly, it informed, I think, his kind of racial openness.
GROSS: What was it like to meet with Prince? He had such an air of mystery around him. He was - there was something so elusive about him. So meeting him in person, talking with him about something really practical like what this book was going to be - what was that like?
PIEPENBRING: It was extraordinary, and what I remember especially from the first meeting with him is is the silence surrounding him. And really, as I thought about it, I realized that I had never kind of heard him simply speaking. He was always framed by the pageantry of his music or his performances, so to hear his voice and his voice only in a very quiet room was in itself a pretty remarkable thing. And he was just a very smooth conversationalist, someone who really was not afraid to get carried away in various trains of thought. I loved how digressive he could be in conversation, how discursive, and I think that that really let him feel like he could experiment with the shape of the book and to just kind of riff with me about what it might be. Was it going to be an autobiography? Was it going to have a kind of handbook component where he could really instruct people on his musical philosophy? And how would our voices mix in it? You know, these were all things that we entertained. And when he locked eyes with you, he could make you feel like you could do things that even five minutes before would have seemed impossible. He was a very generous conversationalist in that way, a very charitable interlocutor.
GROSS: Did he show up or leave without explanation?
PIEPENBRING: He did, yeah. He would always know when to cut the conversation, and he was also good about telling me even where to sit. It was clear that he would enter a room and know immediately how he wanted to run it, even when it was just the two of us. So he always knew when it was time to draw things to a close, and I would just go along with that.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Piepenbring, and the new book that he edited and wrote the opening essay in is called "Prince: The Beautiful Ones." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "DELIRIOUS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Piepenbring. He was going to be Prince's collaborator on Prince's memoir. Prince died very early in the process, so Dan edited a new book called "Prince: The Beautiful Ones." And it's Dan's personal essay about Prince, it's the pages Prince had written before he died that he meant to be included in the memoir, and there's also a lot of, like, song lyrics and photos and other things collected from Paisley Park.
Your last conversation with Prince was a phone call four days before he died. This was on April 17, 2016. Tell us about the phone call.
PIEPENBRING: It was the only time he had called my cell phone. And my cell phone was charging at the time, and I had a very short cord, so I had to kind of stoop on the floor and talk to him, and I remember scrawling everything he said on a stray piece of paper I had. And he just wanted to call to tell me that he was OK. This was toward the end when his plane had had to make an emergency landing. He had just made what would turn out to be his last public appearance, and I think there was a lot of speculation in the press that something might be wrong. And he told me, no, I just wanted to say that I'm all right.
And then immediately, he returned to the theme of his parents and addressed that central dilemma, as he called it. He also wanted to talk about the idea of cellular memory, this idea that maybe in his cells, his literal body, in his genes, he had inherited the memories and traumas of his parents. And I think he found that's something that really aligned with his religious views and with the feelings he'd been kind of carrying around for his whole life about the way his mom and his dad lived inside him.
GROSS: You had heard in the press that Prince's plane was - made an emergency landing because Prince had a bad case of the flu. And you told him that you were sorry he had the flu and hoping he felt better, and he said, no, no - flu-like symptoms.
GROSS: So what do you think the distinction was he was - what was he trying to tell you, do you think, when he said flu-like symptoms?
PIEPENBRING: Yeah. I've pored over those words so many times since then, and I do have to wonder, was - he didn't want to lie to me, clearly, but I think he just wanted to signal that, while he felt that he was fine and on the mend, that there was, you know, something wrong. And I think it was really just a desire not to tell a lie and to say that, yes, he was feeling bad, but that he couldn't really put his finger on what it was, maybe.
GROSS: So he died four days after that call of an overdose of fentanyl. When you were working with him, what did you know about his use of opioids?
PIEPENBRING: Absolutely nothing. I saw no evidence of it ever, and I was just gobsmacked when that news came out because it did not square at all with the man I had met who was so sunny and who would sometimes be literally bouncing on the balls of his feet. I remember once we were in that elevator at Paisley, the same one where he would later be found, and he was just - he said, you know, you've got me all hopped up on this industry talk. I can't wait to write about the music industry and my mother. And to think that in that same space, he would later be found dead - it's just something that I could not imagine, so I never had any idea. He was so vivacious and put so much care into everything he said and did that I really - I had no inkling of what he was up against.
GROSS: So he overdosed on Vicodin, or fake Vicodin with fentanyl...
GROSS: ...Which is, like, super powerful.
GROSS: Do you know - I guess you probably don't know, but was he in chronic pain?
PIEPENBRING: I have to assume he was, and I think that's only a sort of further tribute to his work ethic. Prince was so famously anti-drug, and I think if there was one thing that would lead him to begin taking drugs like that, it would be to help him work and to contend with the pain that comes from a career of jumping off stage risers in platform heels. Of course, there's speculation behind that, but I don't think there was anything recreational about it. There was not a hedonistic bone in his body when I knew him. This was something that he felt he needed to keep performing at the level that he wanted to perform at, to keep pushing himself.
GROSS: After Prince died, you got access to Paisley Park to look for things that you could use for the book because you continued to work on the book that was supposed to be his memoir. What some of the more wonderful things that you found in Paisley Park?
PIEPENBRING: It was such a treat to be able to go there after he had died and to explore it in essentially exactly the way that he had left it. And I went there with my editor and my publisher and my agent, and we would just take a deep breath before we entered every room because there was really no saying what you would find. And in this one vast bedroom in the back corner of Paisley with a kind of shining, almost blindingly white carpet and a four-post bed and the words, everything you think is true, painted on the walls, we found on a bedside table a collection of lyrics that had been clipped together. And they were all handwritten by him, and they spanned just about his whole career. And "Little Red Corvette" was there and "Pink Cashmere" and "1999" and so many of the the biggest hits that he had had, and they were all alive with these cross-outs and revisions and erasures. And they seemed the perfect testament to his creative process, which is something that he had wanted to bring across in the book.
So I remember putting them down on this carpet and just flipping through them one by one and kind of gasping as we turned each page, and that was really special. I think that was one moment where we knew that we could carry forth, that we could make the book happen even in his absence because here he was in these pages.
GROSS: You know, you write that Prince had created a persona as a prophetic act. He could become the person he imagined. Can you elaborate on that for us?
PIEPENBRING: Yeah. It's a bit tricky, and I think it comes out of what he told this group of editors when he assembled them at Paisley Park before I was even involved in the book. But he was very adamant that this persona and this kind of mystery that surrounded him was something that he really had engineered. It was something that he worked on the same way he worked on his technical craft. He had a very clear idea of the value that existed in letting the world know that you weren't going to show them everything.
And I think almost kind of mimicking the way we discover ourselves, he, until the end - as with you and I - never really fully understood himself. And I think if you can reproduce that sense of mystery that you feel about your own self in performance or in your music, there's such a gravity in that, and it really attracts people because they want to know more without even knowing why or without knowing what might be hidden. So I think he was very astute at knowing kind of - at understanding the iceberg of the self, you know, and knowing what should be submerged and what should be above water.
GROSS: Dan Piepenbring, it's been really a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
PIEPENBRING: Thank you, Terry. It's been so great to be here.
GROSS: And the new Prince book edited by Dan Piepenbring is called "Prince: The Beautiful Ones."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")
PRINCE: (Singing) I never meant to cause you any sorrow. I never meant to cause you any pain. I only wanted one time to see you laughing. I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain. Purple rain, purple rain, purple rain, purple rain, purple rain, purple rain. I only wanted to see you bathing in the purple rain. I never wanted to be your weekend lover.
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Kevin Wilson, author of the new novel "Nothing To See Here" about a woman who takes over the care of twin children who spontaneously combust when agitated. The novel came out of the terrifying images that have flashed through Wilson's mind since childhood. When he was an adult, he was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome. Wilson's previous novel "The Family Fang" was made into a film starring Nicole Kidman. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")
PRINCE: (Singing) Purple rain, purple rain.
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")
PRINCE: (Singing) Purple rain, purple rain. I only wanted to see you walking in the purple rain. Honey, I know, I know, I know times are changing.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.